By Ranjini Banerjee
The Bengali passion for food finds expression in unique and delicious festive fare for each of the year’s many festivals
The Bengali New Year is over and I can still taste the delicious feast that is part of this day. For us, food is not just a necessary requirement of the body. It is an integral and inseparable part of life,” says Som Banerjee, a media professional who would like to own a speciality restaurant someday.
A Bengali household follows the culture of eating meals course by course, starting with the bitter and ending with sweets. Fish is central to the cuisine. The fish follows a Bengali to his grave, being a part of every ceremony starting from mukhey bhaat (the first time an infant eats solid food) to matshomukh (the day marking the end of funeral rituals).
A popular saying goes ‘Baro mashey tero parbon’, which literally translated means ‘13 festivals in 12 months.’ It is true, we celebrate life in every way we can, and the celebrations are usually in the form of an elaborate feast.
A look at some festivals throughout the year with their traditional Bengali fare:
Baisakh and Joishtho (mid-April – mid-June)
Poila Baisakh is the Bengali New Year’s Day and it is believed that the way you spend this day will reflect the whole year. It is therefore considered crucial to celebrate this day with a feast. A typical New Year feast would include the following:
• Ghee (made with cow’s milk) and rice
• Postor bora (poppy seed pakora)
• Shukto (a vegetable preparation with bitter being the predominant taste)
• Dal (lentil) cooked with the fish-head
• Beguni (eggplant fritters)
• Panch torkari (a dish prepared with five types of vegetables)
• Maacher jhol (fish curry)
• Mangsho (mutton preparation)
• Chutney (usually made from mangoes)
• Mishti doi (sweet curd)
• Paan (betel leaf)
Ashar and Shrabon (mid-June – mid-August)
Come monsoons and the Bengali heart soars! It is the primary season for fish and especially ilish or hilsa, which is tastiest during this time. It is eaten in a number of ways – fried, in mustard curry, in green chilli paste or even steamed. Some varieties of fish like the magur, shingi, and parshey, which are mostly avoided during the rest of the year, are now consumed heartily!
Rath Jatra (the chariot festival of Lord Jagannath) is celebrated during the monsoons. On this day decorated chariots carrying Lord Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra are pulled through the streets. And yes, there is a special food for this day too – the fried papad (popadum).
If you thought we only celebrate rituals and festivals with food, you are wrong! Each time the thunderclouds rumble, a mother will rush to the kitchen to prepare mouth-watering khichdi accompanied by fried vegetables, simply to celebrate a rainy day!
Bhadro and Ashwin (mid-August – mid-October)
Autumn heralds the main Bengali festival of Durga Puja. However, the celebrations start much earlier (as if they had stopped in the first place!)
Taal Nobomi is a festival dedicated to the palm (you read that right! We have a day dedicated to the palm). Kheer and palm pakoras are the specialities.
Janmashtami, celebrated as the birthday of Lord Krishna has a special dish allotted to it too! Malpua, which is a deep fried pancake, dipped in sugar syrup. Palm pakoras and sevai payesh (vermicelli kheer) are also prepared in addition to the malpua.
Durgotsav or Durga Puja is the biggest festival for us, and it is celebrated on a grand scale. On Shoshti mothers eat a vegetarian meal for the welfare of their children. The meal consists of luchi (puris made of maida), cholar dal (gram lentils cooked with coconut), chanar dalna (paneer curry), bhaja (fried vegetables), potato curry, and sweets. Only fruits are consumed in the evening (seasonal fruits being batabi lebu or pomelo, sugarcane, coconut, amloki or country gooseberry and jolpayi or olives). Saptami and Ashtami are celebrated with a vegetarian menu. Some families have developed their unique traditions. My in-laws follow the custom of having luchi and mutton on Maha Nobomi, as a rule. On Dashami, the delicacy of jora ilish (a pair of hilsa cooked together) is usually prepared.
Bijoya Dashami is a traditional custom, which is followed from the Dashami evening until Lakshmi Puja. During this time the youngsters seek the blessings of elders by touching their feet and in turn are served with a variety of sweets (usually coconut-based sweets like naru, chandrapuli, payesh, and gokul pitha), nimki (flour cracker) and ghugni (a delicacy prepared with green peas).
Lakshmi Puja (in honour of the goddess of wealth) is celebrated in almost every household. Traditional dishes which are prepared as an offering to the goddess and then served as prasad include khichdi, pulao, labra (mixed vegetable), five different types of fried vegetables, cauliflower or cabbage dish, chutney, payesh and other sweets. The prasad also includes a serving of seasonal fruits like pomelo, guava, mausambi, grapes, banana, papaya, sugarcane, and oranges. A special prasad called ‘shinni’ is exclusively prepared only for pujas for Lord Narayan and since Goddess Lakshmi is considered the wife of Narayan, this is prepared for the Lakshmi Puja as well. Shinni is prepared by mixing banana, flour, batasha (piece of candied sugar), milk, kaju, kishmish, karpur (camphor), coconut, fruits and patali gur (jaggery made of sugarcane).
Kartik and Oghraan (mid-October – mid-December)
When winter is just about to set in and the days become shorter, it is also the season for the new harvest.
Kali Puja is celebrated during this season with firecrackers and lights. In the old days, a young goat was sacrificed to the goddess and then cooked without onion or garlic and eaten as prasad. Today the ritual of sacrifice has almost stopped, although the tradition of eating mutton curry and rice on this night after the puja continues.
Nabanna Utsav or the festival of the new harvest is celebrated by preparing payesh cooked with new rice grains. It is also the day to start the preparation of bori (roasted and dried balls of lentils). The ceremony starts with the preparation of the first two bori of the season, which are then worshipped and symbolically married to each other.
Poush and Magh (mid-December – mid-February)
While the world has already celebrated the end of a year and the beginning of a new year, the Bengali community is still nearing the end of the year with this season.
Poush Sankranti (Makar Sankranti) is the celebration of the harvest festival. The traditional sweet prepared is pithey (kind of pancake) of various types like akshay, gokul, shajer, pathishapta and ranga alur pithey. Thus, the festival is also known as ‘pithey parbon’.
Saraswati Puja is dedicated to the goddess of learning. The occasion marks the official arrival of the narkal kul. Traditionally, this fruit is first offered to the goddess and can only be consumed after her blessings. The other prasad includes seasonal fruits, khichdi, and payesh made of khejur gur (jaggery of date palm).
Sheetala Shoshti is a special festival celebrated by mothers for the welfare and long life of their children. Sheetala is the goddess of the children and is said to watch over them at all times. The food for the occasion has to be prepared one day in advance and is vegetarian. A typical food for this occasion is ‘gota sheddho’ (five types of vegetables cooked in urad dal).
Phalgun and Chaitra (mid-February – mid-April)
As the Bengali year finally ends, the celebrations continue.
Dol jatra (Holi) is the traditional festival of colours. On offer are sweetmeats like gujiya and goja, and bhang as well.
Chaitra Sankranti marks the last day of the year and we bid a bitter farewell to the year by consuming the traditional neem pata bhaja. Before we have had time to reflect over the past year and feel a sense of loss due to the fast passage of time, the New Year is upon us and the cycle has begun once again!
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